JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Changes in rules for those seeking to become a lawyer in Mississippi could result in some returning to law school.
The Mississippi Supreme Court says a person seeking to become a lawyer has to pass the bar exam within three attempts or they will have to go back to law school for at least 12 semester hours before they can retake the test. After going back to law school and successfully completing the 12 hours or additional course work, an applicant will be permitted to take the bar exam one additional time, the court's order says.
The change comes after the annual passage rate on the Mississippi Bar exam has dropped from 79 percent in 2014 to 48 percent last year, The Clarion Ledger reported.
The order, written by Justice Leslie King, was filed last week. The rule change was adopted at the request of the Mississippi Board of Bar Admissions. It's to take effect with the February 2020 bar exam.
Some justices on the nine-member court said in separate written statements that they are opposed to giving an applicant an additional opportunity to try to pass the exam after three failed attempts.
"I would impose the three-failure limit, but I would not allow those candidates who fail three times to retake the Mississippi Bar exam," said Justice Josiah Coleman.
Coleman said the court didn't have any data to support or contradict that candidates who fail the bar exam three times will be rendered competent to practice law after studying and paying for 12 additional hours of law school.
Mississippi Bar exam statistics show that 10 of the 102 applicants, or 9.8 percent, who took the exam in February had previously failed three or more times. In July 2018, 14 of 178, or 7.9 percent, had taken the exam at least three previous times.
The number of students passing the twice-a-year bar exam has been on a downward trend over the last several years.
Board of Bar Admissions Chairman Marcie Baria said in the petition to the court that in recent years, Mississippi has found itself mirroring the nation with smaller law school class sizes, recent plummeting bar passage rates - now stagnated at a new low/normal - and a generation that appears to learn differently than those who have come before.
"Over the last few testings, repeat exam takers comprise approximately 40% of those sitting for each exam," Baria said, "the escalating number of applicants retaking the exam adversely and significantly affect pass rates in Mississippi and those retaking the exam repeatedly do not show a statistical likelihood of passing on subsequent attempts."
The Mississippi Supreme Court annual report for 2018 said 269 people took the bar exam overall during the February and July exams. The pass rate was 48 percent.
In 2017, 262 took the bar exam with a pass rate of 52 percent.
In 2016, 276 took the bar exam with a pass rate of 68 percent.
In 2015, 286 took the bar exam with a pass rate of 75 percent.
In 2014, 294 took the bar exam with a pass rate of 79 percent.
No one purports to know for sure why the passing rate is declining, but some have suggested it may be that law schools are accepting less qualified students.
Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, has said a 2015 investigation by the national organization found that law schools were accepting more students with lower incoming credentials than ever before.
Local Jackson attorney Jim Warren said he cannot correlate bar passage ability with ability to practice law other than the bar passage indicates an ability to prepare and successfully complete a task.
"Folks with better test-taking abilities and the resources to utilize prep courses are likely to do better than those without those advantages. But graduation from an accredited law school is no small feat, and probably indicates the potential attorney is qualified," Warren said.
"The decline in rate of passage may relate to changes in the test," he added. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that the test has gotten harder over the past several years."
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